The most modern movie star on the planet shares his feelings on ‘Dune,’ his famous family, and social justice.
[Photoshoots & Portraits] > 2020 Shoots > Set 004
MEN’S HEALTH – ONE MORNING IN LATE JULY, in the Year of Whatever Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong And/Or Might Actually Kill You otherwise known as 2020, Los Angeles drivers westbound on the 118 were treated to a surreal sight even by California standards. There, in the slow lane of the freeway, a giant man was sputtering along in a 1929 Ford Model A hot rod with no roof and no windshield. His long, sandy-blond hair whipped across his face in the wind, and the red blanket he had placed over the busted car seat to cushion it was now flying like a cape behind his neck. Those who pulled up close to get a better look at a potential real-life Superman weren’t too far off the mark. It was Jason Momoa—Aquaman himself—behind the wheel, drumming on his knees to the Tom Waits song playing in his head while his car slowly broke down beneath him. Then, just as he neared his exit in the San Fernando Valley, radiator fluid began spraying all over his face. He was due at a photo shoot for this magazine in ten minutes.
“My wife makes fun of me all the time because everything I have breaks down,” he tells me when he arrives at the shoot only a few minutes behind schedule, freshly delivered to the set with a huge smile after hitching a ride with a buddy. He needs all of two minutes to peel off his stained shirt for a clean one and splash some water on his beard before he’s ready for the first shot, and one quickly surmises that Momoa is the type of guy to whom this kind of shit happens all the time. “I like old, beautiful things,” he says, shrugging off the roadside havoc. “It feels like you’re in a time capsule when you’re riding an old bike.”
But for all the old-man affection for classic racers and vintage Harleys, and for all the brick-house physicality that would’ve made him an outstanding ’80s action hero, Momoa has spent the past few years slowly revealing himself to be the most singular and surprising—the most modern, really—male movie star we’ve got. “I don’t do incognito,” he explains. “Here’s this flamboyant Cadillac I’ve had since I was 22, because I love Elvis. Here’s my top-hat collection, because I love top hats. Here’s my ridiculous pink fur coat. I have a lot of weird things.” Perhaps it’s because he used to go antiquing “all the time” with his mom that he appreciates well-made items and durable designs. “I can look at a rusty spoon,” he tells me, “and it defines who I am.”
Go ahead and think of another action star, much less one who stands six-foot-four with broad shoulders and a barrel chest that make him seem much, much bigger, who speaks of spiritual communion with cutlery. Or who likes to reminisce about the last time he cried. (Just a few months back, when his daughter, Lola, turned 13.) Or who’s in regular touch with his aumakua (Hawaiian for ancestral spirits). Or who likes to throw his tousled mane into a man bun using a pink scrunchie. (“It’s mine, not Lola’s,” he says as a point of fact.) Or who hates going to the gym and says yoga is too hard. Go ahead and think, really. We’ll wait. And while we wait, consider that Momoa would be the first to tell you that all of the tough-guy vibes you picked up from his Walk of Fame performances in Game of Thrones (as Khal Drogo) and Conan the Barbarian and Aquaman were just an act. Which makes sense, because he was acting. “I may look big and tough, but I’m not,” he explains. “I’m nothing like Khal Drogo. I’m not even the king of my own house! I’m absolutely terrified of my wife.” (His wife is actress Lisa Bonet, and if it’s still possible in these hard, cynical times for a man to worship his wife, Momoa surely tries. He is a proud Wife Guy.)
With Momoa, we’ve got ourselves an altogether different type of star from all the Chrises and Ryans who serve up their own spins on wholesome, well-groomed, on-script masculinity. Spontaneous, humble, earnest, and actually, honest-to-goodness-ly authentic, he’s more like the charismatic spawn of the Rock and wee Timothée Chalamet, bulldozing outdated and restrictive modes of manliness and showing the rest of us how to embrace our full non-incognito selves. Now, at 41, after two decades of playing buff guys without a lot of brains, Momoa is getting his first taste of working on a prestige film with an acclaimed director and a metric ton of Academy Award–winning and –nominated actors. The man is not done surprising us yet.
THE FILM IS DUNE, and it’s the first installment of the long-awaited adaptation of Frank Herbert’s best-selling sci-fi novel. It’s the type of film whose teaser trailer breaks the Internet, and it would’ve been the biggest movie in America this holiday if COVID-19 hadn’t pushed its release date to October 1, 2021. Momoa plays Duncan Idaho, a swordmaster and mentor to the young protagonist Paul Atreides, played by none other than Chalamet. As Momoa and I talk over a large meat-and-cheese platter in a small, wood-paneled trailer on the set of the photo shoot, he struggles to contain his excitement for the movie. He’s wearing tattered and greased cargo work pants that look 15 years old because they are 15 years old, and he requests that any swear words he accidentally uses to demonstrate his enthusiasm about Dune be scrubbed from the record because he’s working hard to cut back on f-bombs. He stands while I sit, bouncing on the toes of his boots while telling me all about his costars, from Chalamet (“as beautiful on the inside as he is on the outside”) to Oscar Isaac (“my new man crush”) to Josh Brolin (“who I look up to so much”) to Javier Bardem (“like a god to me, the roof”). He’s like a college freshman on fall break telling his parents all about his awesome new friends, each one cooler than the last.
Director Denis Villenueve, best known for bringing Blade Runner 2049 to the screen in 2017, read the Dune series as a kid and considers making the film a lifelong dream. In an email to Men’s Health, Villeneuve calls casting Momoa in the role a no-brainer. “Duncan Idaho is a true heroic knight figure, a proud, courageous, righteous, and ruthless man, famous for his unmatchable fighting skills. He’s also a bit of a bohemian. I thought that Jason would be perfect to embody him. Like Duncan Idaho, Jason has an insane charisma that makes people gravitate around him. Jason is a force of nature. He’s bigger than life.”
Momoa says that signing up to portray Idaho in 2019 was such an honor—he was working on See, his series for Apple TV+, and was looking for something big—but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t scared shitless. “Knowing Denis picked me to play this role,” Momoa says between mouthfuls of salami and cheddar, “I’ve never been this nervous.” Not that he really had to be. He recalls that one of the first scenes he shot required him to share the screen with Oscar winner Bardem, aka the “god.”
“We were sitting at this table, and the scene is all about Javier walking into the room. I’ve never seen someone strut into a room like such a boss. He just comes right up to this table and stares everybody down. He’s glaring at everyone else but giving me a little bit of a twinkle, and I’m just giggling inside because I can’t believe I’m at this table right now. So then he delivers his lines and just kills it. And right after that, Denis goes up to him and starts giving him notes. I’m shocked, like, What the hell could you possibly be giving him notes on? So I’m standing there absolutely terrified because I had to deliver all this sci-fi exposition, which is not my bag at all. And then I did it and I did not get any notes at all. I was so unbelievably happy I could have cried.”
Momoa may have felt like, ahem, a fish out of water among this company, but his costars say he was crucial to the cast’s on-set chemistry. “Jason inspires a group spirit to all around him,” Chalamet later writes me. “He is someone who brings a raw joy for filmmaking to the set every day. He’s one of those enriching humans to be around for their joy of camaraderie, which is especially important to be around when you are starting out as an actor.” Villeneuve felt it, too: “He has a very contagious positive attitude. You could feel the Momoa wave of energy coming in just as he was landing on set.”
Think of it as Big Momoa Energy, something he first learned to harness and channel at a young age. He was born in Hawaii but raised as an only child by a single mother in Norwalk, Iowa. (His dad is a painter who still lives in Hawaii.) Momoa says that when he looks back on his childhood, he recalls there really wasn’t that much to do in the small midwestern town.
He whipped up his own outdoor adventures in dusty fields and developed an appreciation for old, beautiful things on those antiquing expeditions with his mom. He played street hockey and also discovered rock climbing as a kid. “Even though I work in Hollywood, I’m 100 percent roots Midwest,” he says. “I work hard and don’t take anything for granted. I’m a big family guy.”
The importance of family was never bigger for Momoa than in 2020. “We’ve all gotten so much closer,” he says of his time hunkering down with his wife and children. When he’s not on a film set or riding old Harleys through Topanga Canyon, he spends most of his days rock climbing or playing with Lola or his 11-year-old son, Nakoa-Wolf, whom he calls Wolfie. “My wife is very sophisticated and smart and [our kids and I are] kind of like animals that need to be trained a little better,” he says. “I’m constantly a work in progress, and I’ve just been trying to get better as a father and a husband.”
This past year was as stressful and scary for him as it was for the rest of us, but the silver lining was that it kept him at home. There is no television in the house and his kids don’t have phones, so family play involves climbing on the two walls he had built, swimming, skateboarding, guitar playing, listening to records, and hiking with their three dogs. “I can’t believe it—they love reading,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Stop reading! Get outside.’ It’s insane.” While he has brought his family with him on shoots all over the world, Momoa says his kids are old enough that even though they still enjoy being with their dad, they don’t want to miss out on school and hanging with their friends. But now that they’re doing remote learning, “they can do school on the road and come be with Papa. Woo-hoo!” he says, his voice rising into a scary-movie-trailer-style deadpan. “And I can take them everywhere, forever.”
When Momoa met Bonet in 2005, she was a single mom raising her teenage daughter, Zoë, with ex-husband Lenny Kravitz. Rather than being intimidated by the fact that the woman he was trying to woo used to be married to Lenny fucking Kravitz, Momoa became so close to him from the jump that they now refer to each other as ohana, or family. Momoa is also close to Zoë—he’s called her “zozo bear” on Instagram, and she’s referred to him as “papa bear,” and the whole thing is incredibly sweet. “I love her husband,” he says. “I love her dad. I hope and pray my daughter is that talented and loving and open and close to her family.”
“I tried yoga the other day, and it was the hardest thing i’ve ever done in my life i’d rather squat a car. Climbing el Capitan would be easier than doing two hours of yoga”
Once Zoë started bringing boyfriends around the house, Kravitz played the whole thing super cool (no surprise there), while Momoa was the house worrier. “Lenny is way cooler than I am,” Momoa says. “I was baffled.” He says part of the reason he cried about Lola turning 13 was that he knows at some point she will start dating and he will inevitably freak out. “I’m not going to do well with it,” he says. “I’ll just hate it if she brings home some dipshit bad boy.” He’s hoping she’ll gravitate toward someone as devoted to her as he is to her mom. “I’m like, ‘If you find a man who treats you better than I [treat Bonet], good luck!’ ” A nice guy, in other words. A modern man. Someone like him.
AS IT DID for most of us, 2020 got Momoa feeling a little cooped up. After three months of his mother being locked down with her dogs in her Iowa house, Momoa and a few buddies got tested for COVID-19 and set out on an epic drive from Los Angeles to visit her and his 91-year-old grandmother. They stopped at a friend’s house outside St. Paul, Minnesota, when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Momoa and his crew were packing up to head to Iowa the next day when protesters began clashing with police and triggered riots that gripped the nation. As fires raged in the Twin Cities behind them, tornadoes lay ahead: The group got stuck near the Iowa border as storms bore down on towns near his mother’s house. They eventually made it to her safely, and did the sort of basic family stuff we all did during lockdown: get takeout from favorite restaurants and eat and laugh and laugh and eat.
Momoa was traveling back to L. A. as mass protests were happening in several major American cities. “It felt like the whole country was falling apart,” he says. “At the same time, I think things needed to change. There are so many massive issues happening that can’t be tolerated anymore, and I’m absolutely behind them. I’m looking forward to not going back to normal. I do believe we’ve hit a tipping point. We just need to keep fighting for it. For me, I’ve been on the forefront of trying to do a lot of things with climate change and environmental issues, and that’s all part of this, too. That’s kind of gone by the wayside for some people, but it hasn’t for me.”
Momoa was interested in protecting the oceans long before he swam into Aquaman’s suit. He was studying to be a marine biologist at college before dropping out to become an actor. He says one of his major goals for 2021 is to try to cut back on eating meat, for environmental reasons, which will be difficult because he really loves eating meat. As for his other New Year’s resolution? “I’d also like to go from being the best fan of Guinness to being just a really good fan of Guinness,” he says.
Looking at Momoa, you’d assume he must bust his ass to get the kind of build that makes him look every inch the DC superhero. You’d be wrong. “It’s just genetics,” he says. “Hawaiians are big people. I rock climb a lot. Maybe I’m an ape. I love the way it feels. I like being upside down. I always loved climbing trees as a kid and swinging in the breeze. But lifting weights is challenging.”
Bonet is big into Pilates and yoga, and she’s been urging her husband to join her. “So I tried yoga the other day, and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “I’d rather squat a car. Climbing El Capitan would be easier than doing two hours of yoga. I can’t bend over anymore! My hamstrings are so tight. It’s pathetic. I remember one time I was all yoked out for Conan the Barbarian, and I was in a yoga class with these older ladies in Topanga and everyone was just holding their arms up and I was like, [screams] ‘This is so hard!’ ”
The more Momoa makes fun of himself, the easier it is to envision him excelling in comedic roles, like John Cena or the Rock. So much of what made his performance in Aquaman entertaining was that he gave us a superhero who never took himself too seriously. After he shoots Aquaman 2 (global pandemic permitting), he will start filming what he calls his “dream role.” He won’t tell me anything about the project, other than that he cowrote it and it will shoot in Hawaii. Oh, and he won’t be playing a doctor or lawyer. (“I wouldn’t hire me for those roles, either.”) When he’s done with his current projects, he says, he wants a chance to do comedy. “Romantic-comedy lead, the nerdy best friend, anything,” he says. “I would love to do it, but so far nobody will hire me for it.”
He’s hoping that after Dune, different doors will open for him. He could live a more than comfortable life continuing to play the same character over and over again, but comfort has never really been his thing. After all, this is a man who somehow worked up the nerve to ask out Lisa Bonet when she was 38 and he was 26, even though he admits now that at the time, he was “a mess.” “Especially when you meet someone you’re completely infatuated with and then find out she’s amazing, intelligent, and funny and she’s a goddess and you’re a degenerate.” When I ask him if he has any advice for the average person trying to figure out how to date someone out of their league, Momoa deadpans, “Give up! Don’t do it!” He laughs. “I was a nervous wreck. I really don’t have any tips. Be you. Try to be funny and make her laugh.”
His voice rises, and he pulls his long hair out of the knot—he jokingly says Bonet would divorce him if he ever cut that hair. He considers the year that lies ahead of him: the best work in the best film of his career, a family brought closer together by a historically awful time, a profession that will include both he-man roles (as long as the offers keep rolling in and his surgically repaired knees hold up) and who knows what else. One thing is for sure: Momoa will wait to see Dune until his whole family can watch it with him, in part because Wolfie gets too upset seeing his father bloody and bruised onscreen. “My son just loses it,” Momoa says. “ ‘Papa, are you okay?’ And I’m like, ‘Son, I’m sitting right next to you. We’re good. This was two years ago. Just watch the movie.’ ”
This story appears in the December 2020 issue of Men’s Health